Opportunities worth trumpeting

October 15, 2012
By: Tim Heston

We all know wage growth in this country is next to nothing. It’s one reason why the presidential election season has been so contentious. Employees continue to work harder than ever, while employers hesitate to hire more.

But metal fabricators and other manufacturers have another problem: Some would like to hire more, but they can’t find the skilled talent they need. It’s been this way for years, of course, and politicians know this, which is why legislatures and government administrators are launching programs like the  Right Skills Now initiative to address the problem.

If skills are in high demand, many assume that higher pay would follow that demand, and to some extent it has, as reported by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association’s Salary/Wage & Benefit Survey. A code-level welder’s (one certified to certain industry codes) average salary has risen more than 3 percent since 2010--not very impressive, but the growth isn’t nonexistent, as so many people have experienced since the recession.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune cited a welder who, despite his skill, made a little less than he did when he was an assistant manager for a fast-food restaurant. Even worse, whenever you hear of union negotiations in manufacturing, you always hear of wage concessions. The message: Workers today aren’t making as much as they once did.

But we don’t hear as much about people like Steve Ross. He started as a general laborer at Arin Inc., a Detroit-based low-volume stamping and laser-cutting operation. He worked his way up, becoming a press operator, laser cutting machine operator, and finally plant supervisor. He literally starting sweeping the floors, and now he’s running the shop.

Small businesses dominate manufacturing, though they don’t necessarily dominate the headlines. While workers at large factories fight for better pay, the best workers at small shops are rising through the ranks, either at one company or by moving from one small fabricator to the next.

The average code-welder pay is $45,238--only 3 percent higher than the average pay in 2010. How can this be, when highly skilled welders are so in demand? But when you look at the minimum ($21,900), maximum ($83,000), and standard deviation ($14,137), you can see that the reality is more complicated. The standard deviation is almost a third of the average salary.

Why such variation? First, one shop may define a “code welder” differently from the next. A welder who becomes certified in one code may be paid more than one certified to another code. Second, a code welder getting into the business today is likely to enjoy a steady path for growth. If most salaries were clustered near the average, it would be a different story. But as it is, wages are distributed. If a welder starts at a below-average wage, chances are he eventually will be making well above average--far above that of many who may have mounting student loan debt from a four-year college.

Standard deviations are even larger when you get to front-office jobs as well as the supervisory and management levels. An operations manager’s average salary in this business is $83,201, but the range of salaries reveals more about what’s really happening. The minimum reported is $45,000, and the maximum is more than triple that number, at $150,000.

The wide wage ranges for many jobs show a steady career path in metal fabrication. Workers won’t get rich starting out. Like in any business, some companies are better to work for than others. Some companies pay well, and others do not, but the survey’s pay ranges do reveal that opportunities for growth abound--not just for top management but also for various skilled personnel throughout the organization. Fewer fields these days offer that. During a time of anemic wage growth and the big squeeze on the middle class, such opportunities are worth trumpeting.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314